Monday, December 9, 2013
Like M. K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela marked his century with his imprint. While each of them played a seminal role in the shaping of his country's history, all of them transcended their national confines to become statesmanly figures honoured around the world. Gandhi and King were felled by bullets of intolerance. Mandela remained a beloved figure without, as it were, a foe. Flights of angels sang him to his rest.
Mandela had his woes. Married thrice, his second wife Winnie got embroiled in charges that linked her with the underworld. Two of his daughters went to court, just as his health deteriorated, over rights to the trust fund he had set up. He had contracted tuberculosis from the stone-crushing job he was forced to do in prison. It was to that lung problem that he finally succumbed.
Through it all, Mandela triumphed on the strength of his humanity. The longest -- and harshest -- incarceration in Third World annals did not leave Mandela bitter. When he became his country's first black President in 1994, he was the very picture of moderation and tolerance. Among his first initiatives was the Peace and Reconciliation Commission which sought to avert sentiments of revenge and establish the official policy line that all people of all races would have equal rights in the new South Africa. This was the same idea picturesquely put by Martin Luther King when he said that he wanted the white man to be his brother, not his brother-in-law.
Like most nationalist father figures Mandela was conscious of his public image and its implications. The colourful silk bush-shirts he turned into a personal trademark were not just a style statement but a declaration of the difference between the Liberated African and the full-suited oppressor who reigned till then. His speeches and his books came from a thoughtful mind, careful about the impressions he made as a hero of the people. He did not offer himself for a second term as President though the job was his for life. That was a pointer to his awareness of his importance as an example to others.
That surrender of the self for the larger good was the core quality that distinguished Gandhi, King and Mandela from the usual run of leaders. They became cult figures because people could see that they were unambiguously selfless. None of them became wealthy from public life, none of them built dynasties. They gave more than they received. The gratitude and trust of the people so earned were the bedrock of their greatness.
Their immediate associates did not rise to that level of greatness. Jawaharlal Nehru, for all his qualities of heart and mind, fell short because he was sidetracked by a desire to ensure a favourable place for himself in history and by a weakness for family. The American black leader who came close to Martin Luther King in popularity, Rev. Jesse Jackson, fell prey to scandals and vanished from the scene. Mandela's successors proved no match to him.
It is interesting that, apart from selflessness, the dominant factor that sustained the greatness of the Gandhi-King-Mandela Trimurthis was the idea of non-violence. This virtually subversive concept worked in pre-Mandela South Africa when a classical imperialist like General Smuts acknowledged the effectiveness of a hermit-like Gandhi. Mandela took to violence for a while, perhaps driven to desperation by the irrationalities and excesses of Apartheid. But for this interlude and certainly in his capacity as President and as national icon, he was a votary of nonviolence.Gandhi was his hero.
In the end, did Gandhi succeed? The answer lies in his decision to detach himself from the affairs of state after independence was won. Did Martin Luther King succeed? The ganging up of Republican conservatives against the Black President Obama provides the answer. Nelson Mandela clearly succeeded in raising his country's standing in the world. A woman from the once riot-torn Soweto summed it up when she said: "Without him we wouldn't be what we are now". No leader can ask for a greater reward.
Monday, December 2, 2013
There is a tiny beetle that furniture makers dread because it severely damages old wood. It is called Death-watch Beetle because it makes a sound, like a clock ticking. This is actually a mating call, made by the creature knocking its head against the wood. But people in olden days believed that the unseen clock of life was ticking to announce impending death in the family. That superstition may have gone, but not the ticking of time. With continuous activities that threaten the entire planet, humans have become death-watch beetles, knocking our heads against Nature to announce our own impending end.
Look at the visible death of our rivers at the hands of the sand mafia. This lobby is so powerful that officials who occasionally try to stop illegal sand lorries are run over by the lorries. In no state has the sand mafia been controlled yet. Look also at the Western Ghats that stretch from Gujarat to Kerala. This is the lifeline of the south. The mother of rivers, this majestic mountain range tames the monsoon clouds and makes them drop the rains that keep the region lush and productive.
But the Ghats have been under attack and the consequences are grim. Rain patterns have changed, so have the seasons. Temperatures have been rising and winds that used to blow with clocklike precision have turned erratic. But those who attack the Ghats are undeterred. Forest trees, minerals, granite, resorts and land-grabbing are all that matter to them. A sumptuous mountain on the Malabar side is being surveyed by a Karnataka company preliminary to starting mining operations. According to published reports in Kerala, a former CPM minister gave rights to the company for a 5-crore bribe. If the company goes ahead with its plans, the mountain will disappear in no time.
Astonishingly, when two committees recently produced reports aimed at saving the Western Ghats, Kerala, alone among the six affected states, exploded into violence. A Christian priest went so far as to publicly warn of a Jallianwalla Baug massacre in Kerala. The protests were in the name of saving farmers from being evicted from their lands. No committee has proposed any eviction. Proposals only aim at stopping large-scale industries and businesses from opening afresh in the Ghats. So the aggrieved parties are miners, resort developers and the like. Obviously the "farmers" and their champions are fighting someone else's battle.
They may well succeed and the Western Ghats may soon become a barren stretch. The death-watch beetle is ticking away. Man, the only animal with the ability to make choices, is making choices that will lead only to one outcome: His doom. There are other intelligent animals around, the elephant for example. Why is it that only human intelligence developed to the point where Right could be distinguished from Wrong and the individual would consciously choose the Wrong?
A rather radical answer is provided in a new book, Denial: Self-Deception, Fake Beliefs and the Origins of the Human Mind (Hachette, New York). It is written by Ajit Varki, a medical doctor who went on to become a specialist researcher in Anthropogeny, and biologist-geneticist Danny Brower who postulated a theory but died before he could expound on it.
Denial asserts that man went beyond elephant by developing the ability to deny reality. This gave him optimism and the confidence to face problems. But it also emboldened him to take on unnecessary risks. "We smoke cigarette, eat unhealthy foods and avoid exercise, knowing these habits are a prescription to an early death...... We continue to deny the consequences of unrealistic approaches to everything, from personal health to financial risk-taking to climate change". In short we put mind over reality. This may be all right, to some extent, with smoking and eating junk which are reversible. But "once we have set major climate destabilisation in motion, there is no margin of error. [For] there is only one planet, one biosphere and one Anthropocene epoch..."
Narrow it down and we will see there is only one Western Ghats. Lose it and the death-watch beetle wins.
Monday, November 25, 2013
There is no democracy like Indian democracy. Yashodhara Raje Scindia, BJP candidate in Madhya Pradesh, declared in her election affidavit that she had a dinner set worth Rs 1.54 crore. Was that worth mentioning in a country where a Sheaffer pen was announced for Rs 3 crore plus last week. But when an indulgent reporter asked about the dinner trinket, the candidate smiled indulgently and said, "what's the big deal, we are royals".
Well said, your Royal Highness. In the days of the Raj and Divine Rights, you had the power of life and death over your prajas. When the Republic came, Sardar Patel took that power away but left you with a comfortable privy purse. In 1971 Indira Gandhi took away that purse, but left you with your palaces, your jewels and your dinner plates. With these you went to the hustings and regained the political power the Sardar had snatched from you. Sweet are the uses of democracy, ain't they?
Can we do some arithmetic with the costing of that dining table knick-knack? According to Oracle Ahluwalia of the Planning Commission, an urban citizen needs only Rs 32 a day to eat reasonably well. That means a citizen who has Rs. 11,680 can eat reasonably well for a year. So, if he has Rs 1.54 crore, he can eat comfortably for 1318.49 years. Since he is unlikely to need food for 1318.49 years, there is going to be an enormous amount of surplus food around. Therefore, a reasonable solution to poverty is to have more jewel-encrusted dinner sets at the disposal of royals. Convoluted logic? But certainly patriotic.
This election proves yet again that dynastic culture, the curse of our democracy, has been spreading like an airborne disease. Parties have also become more audacious in the use of violence as a political weapon especially in communally sensitive areas. There is no concern about where these would take us tomorrow. All that matters is today.
As dynasties go, the Scindias were the smart ones. The men took to the Congress and the women to the BJP; so whichever way the toss went, the clan always won. Minister Madhavrao Scindia's son Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia's son Mahanaryaman, all of 16, is already into constituency tours in Madhya Pradesh. Yashodhara Raje, born in London and settled in America, returned to India only in 1994 to share the political pie. She demanded and the BJP agreed to issue a notice in 2006 saying that she should be officially addressed as "Shrimant" which in those parts means Your Highness. Her son Akshay has arrived from New York to let the voters admire him. All so nice and cosy -- and democratic.
Of course in our free-wheeling democracy even commoners can have the clout of royals. Union Minister Kamalnath's son, Congress leader Satyavrat Chaturvedi's son, Himachal Pradesh Governor Urmila Singh's son, Digvijay's son, Ashok Gehlot's son and sundry MPs' and ex-ministers' sons are all vying for tickets. Ajit Jogi's son and wife and Motilal Vohra's son have already got tickets in Chattisgarh.
The BJP is not lagging behind. Madan Lal Khurana's son, Sahib Singh Varma's son are in the field in Delhi. In Rajasthan former BJP chief Ghanshyam Tiwari's son and Jaswant Singh's son are active hopefuls. Irrespective of parties, all sons claim that they are in the fray not because their fathers were beneficiaries of politics but because they are independently qualified to serve the nation. So are millions of educated young men and women in our country. Some even offer themselves -- only to be rejected. When dynasty works, democracy does not.
But then, dynasty and royals are better than communalism and riots. The BJP publicly "honoured" two of its MLAs accused of inciting violence in Muzaffarnagar. Mulayam Singh honoured a Muslim cleric known for communal provocations . His Government announced a relief plan for Muslims -- so partisan a move that the Supreme Court ordered its withdrawal. If we have spawned a democracy in which votes can be won only by pitting religions against one another, it's time to restrict that democracy.
Monday, November 18, 2013
Essentially Arvind Kejriwal is a political accident, the kind that flashes across the scene one moment and is forgotten the next. But his movement is making a buzz that no one can deny. While his ideas are a contributing factor, the main reason for the buzz lies outside his persona and programme. He has become a symbol of the general public's disgust with the reigning political class. For too long have the people been suffering at the hands of exploiters robbing and ruining the country with apparent immunity. To those drowning in the all-encompassing political mud, Kejriwal holds out a straw.
Whether he will get the numbers he needs is an entirely different matter. True, our electorate was vigilant enough to defeat the mighty Indira Gandhi after the atrocities of the Emergency. It was also angry enough to keep the Congress out of Amethi in the last elections and to throw out the BJP in Karnataka. But these were exceptional cases of public outrage boiling over. In general our electorate is so diverse and plagued by such disparate problems that anything like concerted action is difficult to emerge. Look at the bankers, IT professionals and other highly qualified, service-minded people who contested the last elections from Mumbai and Bangalore -- and lost.
Kejriwal has the additional handicap of looking like a one-man band. He had first come into the limelight under the halo of Anna Hazare. Inexplicably the grand old Gandhian publicly washed his hands of his one-time disciple. Kejriwal has two respected associates, lawyer Prashant Bhushan and scholar Yogendra Yadav. Inexplicably again, both have chosen to remain in the background, leaving Kejriwal to shine as the solitary leader of his party. How can this help?
The white-capped leader makes up by his organisational skill and his originality. Some 10,000 volunteers are working full time, taking a break from their studies and/or work. There are wellknown professionals, too, lending their services free. Sameer Nair, for example, who made some magic as CEO of Star TV some time ago. An unnamed person has placed his sprawling bungalow at the disposal of the party for a token rent; it is now the war room of the campaign. It is petty and typical of the Congress's defeatist mentality that Home Minister Shinde has ordered an investigation into foreign funding of Kejriwal. The Congress playing moral?
Some of Kejriwal's ideas show a freshness of approach. A session of the Delhi Assembly at Ramlila Maidan may be a bit too dramatic. People of each of 2700 mohallas deciding by themselves how to spend public funds may be a bit too romantic. But mohalla commandos helping with security in their areas sounds like a good idea. So is the perception that problems vary from area to area and each area should have its own tailor-made manifesto. However, if manifestos talk of subsidised electricity and free water, the new party is succumbing to the freebie tricks of the old parties. We have repeatedly seen subsidies working as an invitation to corruption.
Let's grant that overall the Kejriwal juggernaut is transparent, sees power to the people as an article of faith and is engineered to fight corruption. Is that enough to win an election? Sheila Dixit's demonstrable failure as Chief Minister will no doubt help; she could not even make an effort to address the problem of women's safety, confining herself to platitudes all the while. The infighting in the BJP ranks is another favourable factor. But are these enough to capture power?
The nature of politics is strange. The herd mentality often gets in the way of individual discretion. Habits substitute for deliberation. Party structures and long-established groundlevel networks cannot be easily overtaken by newcomers. The Congress and the BJP may lose some ground, but that need not necessarily mean Kejriwal turning victorious. If he wins, it will be, despite his minuses, a turning point in Indian politics. If he doesn't, it will still have been a worthwhile effort, carrying home the message that the people will continue to fight the political mafiosi until victory is achieved.
Monday, November 11, 2013
Our scientists lift us up to Mars, our politicians drag us down to the pits. The cameras on Mangalyan will not make our dogfighting parties look any better. Not when Sardar Patel himself is turned into a battle axe to hit one another with. Narendra Modi's bid for the legacy of Sardar Patel is understandable. But trying to win it by erecting the world's biggest statue is condemnable. Size is not substance. More importantly, the politics of the Patel statue is divisive and it will diminish India.
We have become a statue-obsessed nation. Standing/sitting/waving Ambedkars, Gandhis, Nehrus and Indiras dot every town. The proliferation is mostly a triumph of commercial art. A statue of Kengal Hanumanthaiah, builder of Bangalore's famous Vidhan Soudha, was so unlike him that the authorities were forced to remove it from the Soudha's premises. The replacement had a better turban, but the face was still alien. Justice to sculptural aesthetics was done only by a few. Deviprasad Roy Choudhury's Dandi March at Delhi's Wellington Crescent, Triumph of Labour in Chennai's Marina Beach, Memorial to Martyrs in Patna are among the finest. Ram Vanji Sutar's bronze Gandhi opposite Parliament's Gate No. 1 throbs with life.
Narendra Modi and others in his political universe are not known for aesthetic sensibilities. So they go for the cheap alternative -- a monolith taller, larger, hulkier, more colossal than anything else on earth. Some 70,000 villagers are to be displaced for developing the gigantic project. They organised protests but were "silenced", according to their spokesmen in South Gujarat.
Modi underlined the politics behind the resurrection of Sardar Patel when he said that Patel was "truly secular" while the Congress was following "votebank secularism". That is true of all parties today. The BJP is following "votebank Hindutva" while the Muslim parties are following "votebank Islam". Ditto with Sikhs, Christians, Bhoomihars, Vanniars, Nairs. The Sardar, though as devoted a Hindu as Gandhi, never used religion for political ends. On the contrary, fighting communal politics was their life's mission. Therefore, if Modi wants to inherit the Patel legacy, he will have to become "truly secular" like Patel. Can he?
For that matter, can he comprehend the subtleties that lie beyond his simplistic thesis that Patel would have made a better Prime Minister than Nehru. We can debate this "if" of history till the end of time. Would C. Rajagopalachari have made a better Prime Minister? Would Rajendra Prasad? Any of them would have been more focussed as a consolidator of India because none of them had either the family weaknesses that made Nehru promote his sister and daughter and sundry cousins in public life, or Nehru's emotional linkages that led to the Mountbattens "advising" on Kashmir policy until it became intractable, unsolvable and a dreadful disgrace.
The real missed opportunity, however, revolved round the growth of a monolithic Congress in defiance of the natural laws of democracy. When independence arrived there was a clear ideological division between conservatives and socialists. The Congress Socialist Party had a galaxy of stars, from Jayaprakash Narayan and Achyut Patwardhan to Rammanohar Lohia and Narendra Deva. They were thwarted by Jawaharlal Nehru's refusal to support them. He, a professed socialist, ended up with professed anti-socialists such as Morarji Desai, S.K. Patil and Jagjivan Ram, turning India into a madhouse of policies. If he and JP had headed an Indian Socialist Party and Patel and Rajagopalachari an Indian Conservative Party, a healthy party system would have developed. Now the monolith is in a shambles and India left to count its lost years.
Today's Congress does not even have the moral right to blame Narendra Modi for trying to hijack the Patel legacy. Where was the Congress all these years when that legacy remained neglected in the attic? The Congress, in its obsession with the Indira dynasty, tried to depersonalise men like Patel and Narasimha Rao. But historical figures of that stature cannot be erased. It is the dynasty that will eventually have to go, because in a democracy dynasty is an unnatural idea. As unnatural as Narendra Modi praising "true secularism".